Two summers ago, as the Covid-19 pandemic ripped through New York, Niani Tolbert feared she was about to hit rock bottom.
Tolbert had lost her job as a tech recruiter months earlier. "I was broke, furloughed and scared," she tells CNBC Make It. "I didn't know how I'd afford to stay in New York City or where my career was going."
That June, she watched as millions of people took to the streets to protest the police killing of George Floyd — and while she wasn't comfortable joining the crowds and risking exposure to the virus, watching the marches stirred something within her.
The best contribution she could make to the racial justice movement, she decided, was donating her time and expertise as a recruiter to help other people of color, like her, who were struggling to find work during the pandemic.
Tolbert put a request out on LinkedIn: Would HR professionals join her in donating an hour of their time to review the resumes of 19 Black women in honor of Juneteenth?
Her post quickly went viral on the platform, and within weeks, Tolbert was able to coordinate more than 500 resume review sessions between Black women and hiring managers.
Leading the volunteer effort gave Tolbert "a sense of purpose when everything else felt unstable," the 29-year-old wrote in a subsequent LinkedIn post.
She decided to turn the initiative, called #HireBlack, into her full-time job: Now, #HireBlack offers hiring events, an annual summit, career workshops, a job board and other career resources for Black women.
#HireBlack's mission is to get 10,000 Black women hired, trained and promoted. Tolbert, who serves as CEO, and her team of eight employees work with top companies such as Amazon, Uber and Disney to recruit and hire Black women.
Another aspect of #HireBlack's mission is to help close the stark pay gap Black women still face: Black women working full-time, year-round make just 67 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, according to new research from the National Women's Law Center. The wage gap shortchanges Black women $22,692 per year and $907,680 over the span of a 40-year career.
Since its inception, #HireBlack has helped Black women boost their collective earnings by over $2 million, with some women seeing pay raises as high as $60,000, Tolbert reports. Here's how she and her team did it.
Conversations about money can call up uncomfortable emotions for Black women, who are often told that they have to work twice as hard to be considered successful, Tolbert says.
"It instills a feeling of putting your head down and being grateful for whatever opportunities you're given, not to challenge how much you're getting paid, which discourages Black women from speaking up and negotiating their salaries," she says.
Bias and discrimination contribute to this disparity, research has shown. But Tolbert says that the wage gap also exists in part because Black women don't negotiate their salaries as often as their white peers, and when they do, are less successful during negotiations than their peers.
Tolbert experienced this inequity firsthand: On a freelance project, she says she was once paid $5,000 while her white colleague was being paid $30,000 for the same work.
The experience made her feel "overwhelmed, discouraged and undervalued," Tolbert recalls. Companies will use these negative emotions, she adds, and secrecy to their advantage "to underpay women and minorities."
That's where #HireBlack comes in: In their summits, workshops, Slack groups and coaching sessions, Tolbert and her team empower Black women to examine their emotions in relation to money and develop a clearer understanding of their unique needs in terms of pay and non-monetary benefits, such as a robust health-care plan or additional PTO.
"Wealth is not about assets, it's about access: access to information, access to resources," she explains.
#HireBlack offers a free crowd-sourced database on its website detailing the salaries for jobs in different industries as well as free virtual workshops that walk participants through the various factors that determine salaries, including company size, location and the employee's previous experience.
For Black women, a successful salary negotiation starts with two tools: a "money team" and a "brag book," according to Tolbert.
Tolbert defines a "money team" as the mentors, HR representatives, recruiters, co-workers and work friends who Black women can have regular, transparent conversations about compensation with, can give them negotiation advice and "talk about them behind closed doors in a positive light."
"I don't see these conversations happen often among Black women, unfortunately, who are often one of few people of color in their workplace, or might be nervous to talk about these topics at work, but it's one of the most important things we can do to make sure we're getting paid fairly," Tolbert says.
To start building a money team, Tolbert recommends networking with a few friends in their industry who have similar years of experience or a trusted manager.
Next is the brag book, or a private folder where workers should document all of their accomplishments at work including any positive feedback, milestones and metrics that showcase their progress in the role.
During a performance review or salary negotiation, a brag book can help employees identify and communicate the value they bring to an organization, Tolbert says.
"Ultimately, Black women have to be their own best advocate in the workplace," she adds. "We want to arm them with all the information, resources and encouragement they need to lead a successful negotiation."